Tag Archives: technology

On (Multi)literacies

The Scene

Sometime in the not-too-distant past, an email came across one of the group lists to which I subscribe. The author of the email was encouraging members of the community – in this case, the school library community of the Commonwealth – to provide feedback on a survey related to possible changes to licensure requirements in the state of Massachusetts.

I completed the survey, but that’s not what this post is about.

One of the proposed changes to current licenses in Massachusetts is in response to the new Digital Literacy and Computer Science standards that were recently developed and passed. The standards, IMHO, are excellent. They require us to consider how we are (or in most cases, are not) developing students’ computational thinking, digital ethics and citizenship, and digital literacy skills. They are also tough – demanding that kindergarteners be able to explain complex human-computer relationships and that 5th graders be able to articulate how technology can create or bridge socioeconomic divides – and I’ve never been one to stand down to a challenge.

The email author, at one point in her message, referenced a shift in possible instructional technology teacher licensure, which requires technology specialists to have some expertise in computer science (at least enough to teach the fundamentals to students). This has implications for teacher preparation programs, and also for other specialists – like library specialists such as herself, who for decades have taught digital literacies right alongside information literacies and “regular old” literacy… which I know one can define in a million different ways, but by which I basically mean reading, understanding, and hopefully enjoying written text.

She wrote something to the effect of “digital literacy is ours.” Ours, meaning librarians’.

This struck me. Enough that I immediately emailed our library lead teacher and #librarybrain extraordinaire to get her thoughts on it. It struck me because it made me think about my definition of digital literacy, which I haven’t questioned in a long while. It made me think about the definition the state of Massachusetts is giving digital literacy by sticking it in a set of standards that includes computer science. And it made me think about “information literacy,” and what that is, and how it is distinct (?) from digital literacy or other literacies.

The Point

This year, our district has been piloting a model that combines “information literacies,” “digital literacies,” and “content literacies” into a single “Research and Digital Learning Block,” which is way too long of a title so it ended up getting shortened to “Research Block” and next year it will be “Integrated Literacy Block” (it has an identity crisis, but I promise it’s awesome). We piloted the model in three schools, but by the end of the school year, all six of our elementary schools had heard about “research block,” and next year, it will expand to all six of our elementary schools.

Integrated Literacy Block is all about multiliteracies. It’s all about layering literacies. The whole point is that “information literacy” can’t be teased apart from “digital literacy” can’t be teased apart from “content literacy.”

Integrated literacy blocks look a little like this: content area teacher, library teacher, and digital learning teacher all find a time, once a week, and block their schedules. At this time, no matter what is happening in the regular literacy curriculum, either information literacies or digital literacies and standards are incorporated into that content. If you’re a visual thinker, here’s a cool diagram:

litblock

I like diagrams like this one. They are neat and clean and indicate conceptual boundaries between things that might not actually have sharp lines separating them. Diagrams like this make a vague world coherent. But what that post to that email list in the not-so-distant past did for me was throw into sharp relief the problematically distinct conceptual line I had drawn between “digital” and “information” literacies as we had conceptualized, and then implemented, our “Integrated Literacy Block.”

As we developed this framework for integrating technology and information literacies, I had to draw lines that would distinguish the roles and expertise of the individuals who were participating: classroom teacher, library teacher, tech teacher. Each of these individuals would essentially “own” a “literacy” in our new instructional model:

Content teacher: content literacies. 

  • Decoding texts
  • Bringing contextual knowledge to texts
  • Comprehending and navigating texts
  • Identifying and navigating many types of texts
  • Synthesizing and connecting content across multiple
  • Creating and writing texts

Library teacher: information literacies. 

  • Generating compelling questions that texts can answer
  • Finding digital and paper-based texts that will address those questions
  • Assessing texts for validity, reliability, and bias
  • Synthesizing information from multiple texts or text types

Digital Learning Teacher: digital literacies.

  • Comprehending and navigating digital hypertexts
  • Comprehending and navigating multimodal texts
  • Creating multimodal texts
  • Accessing appropriate devices and software to engage with digital texts

These distinctions made perfect sense to me as I created the diagram above, but even as I sit and write about these literacies, I struggle to tease them apart cleanly. Certainly, there are discreet skills associated with decoding versus accessing the Internet, navigating a database versus making meaning from a paragraph, creating a podcast versus conducting a keyword search. However, the lines blur in a classroom where students are conducting research about the exploration and conquest of the Americas; creating collaborative Google slideshows that feature maps, images, and information gathered from library databases and print texts; generating questions about explorers; and presenting what they learned to their classmates. Suddenly “assessing texts for validity and reliability” is wrapped into a series of lessons that includes “comprehending and navigating digital hypertexts” and “bringing contextual knowledge to texts.”

But also – that’s the whole point. None of us can “own” these literacies, because they rely on one another; one can’t develop an effective multimodal text without a firm grasp of how various modes (audio, visual) contribute to one another, how audience expectations shape the text, or how information is gathered and conveyed in multimodal texts. Which means, as educators with expertise in various pieces of the literacy puzzle, we (should) rely on one another.

In my dissertation, I defined digital literacies as “socially organized practices one enacts in digital, often online, spaces using digital or non-digital symbol systems to produce or otherwise interact with texts.” That’s a relatively fancy way of saying “literacy: but, now.”  Today’s literacies require us to be comfortable learning about and teaching with texts that are exceedingly complex. 

Today’s texts, in contrast with “yesterday’s texts” are:

  • Coming to us constantly and from all angles. Our phones. Our TVs. Our computers. Our bookshelves.
  • Filled with distractions. Clickbait. Videos. Ads. Links to other texts on the same topic.
  • Personalized, thanks to big data. Don’t believe me? Watch this.
  • Condensed. Think 140 characters (or less).
  • Global and local, all at once. As are our students.

I reject the notion that anyone, regardless of their role in education, can “own” or be solely responsible for any piece of the literacy puzzle, because I struggle to see how the pieces are easily teased apart. Certainly, I make the effort to distinguish the realms of expertise among teachers in our district, if for no other reason because no one person can be responsible for the entire literacy domain in today’s complicated web of text, hypertext, multimodal text, and multiauthored text.

I do not write this to undermine the aforementioned email author’s point of view; to the contrary, I appreciate that her perspective threw into such sharp relief my own beliefs on the matter, forcing me to question the lines and definitions I had drawn around “info/digital/literacy.” Her post has helped me to (re)consider and articulate my own perspective: that to clearly distinguish literacies, and especially to claim any sort of “ownership” over them, is to undermine today’s complex literacy landscape.

Today’s literacies are multi. So must we be.

The Role of Educators in Keeping Digital-Age Kids Safely Connected

Last week, I participated in a Screenagers panel at one of our district’s middle schools. If you haven’t seen the movie, it is an hour-long documentary about the impact of screentime on child and adolescent development: social, behavioral, and cognitive. If I had to sum up the film’s argument in a single sentence, I believe it was telling parents to “beware screentime,” because excessive device use can lead to addictive, antisocial, and academically deleterious outcomes.

The film’s screening for a group of 300 of our parents was well-timed for me, both as an educator and as a new parent. As an educator, I have been thinking a lot about how to embed curriculum that will engage students in critical conversations about their online actions and identities, how they curate and develop those identities, and how they keep their data safe from predators, hackers, and others who might do them harm online — or, frighteningly, in “real life,” as a result of their online actions. As a new parent whose toddler is already intrigued by screens, I wondered how exposure to screens, and especially how my own use (overuse?) of screens might impact my daughter’s development, and I considered ways to set limits on my own device use in order to set a positive example for her.

I could wax poetic on the reflections this has sparked for me as a parent, but for this post, I want to focus mostly on the role of educators when it comes to keeping digital-age kids safe online.

First, I think it’s important to understand that kids like screens because screens provide social connection. As contradictory as this may seem to adults who have watched groups of teens sit in a circle staring at their phones, it rests at the core of why teens and pre-teens love tech. The film, and the panel of teenagers that I had the honor of sitting alongside after the film, made the point that digital devices help them feel connected. To their friends. To the lives and experiences of others. Even to their far-flung families. When today’s 3rd and 4th graders begin asking their parents for phones, it is so they can feel connected.

In this effort to feel connected, kids sign up for Instagram or Snapchat accounts. They follow celebrities on Twitter. They snap selfies and post pictures of themselves all over the Internet. They harass and bully one another. They naturally, and concerningly, use things like “likes” and “follows” as tangible evidence that their social circle of peers approves of them. Natural, because other types of social interaction provide no such concrete data. Concerning, because one’s self-worth should not be measured by a tally of “likes” on Instagram.

Enter every parent’s and educator’s fear about today’s kids and students: they will turn to these ephemeral spaces for validation (or devastation), and because the spaces are in so many ways hidden from our view, we will not be able to step in to protect, intervene, or educate before something terrible happens.

I have firmly believed, since my first day of teaching, that one of the major roles of education in our society is to develop decent citizens. Quality humans. As simply as I can put it: Education Exists to Make Good People. People who can invent, build, create, salvage, save, scrutinize, analyze, and interrogate. People who can collaborate, inspire, and innovate.

And today’s good people have to do all of that in work, academic, and social worlds that are both-and: 

  • Both on a screen and face-to-face.
  • Both global and local.
  • Both digital and analog.
  • Both connected and disconnected.

A parent asked me an excellent question at the end of the film. She apologized for “putting me on the spot” later, but she shouldn’t have, because it’s one of those questions I wish people asked me more often. She asked:

In light of all this research about the negative impact of screens and screentime on kids, why the push in the schools for more access to things like laptops and 1:1 devices?

My inadequate response, since I had very little time to respond:

It’s incredibly difficult to teach students how to make smart decisions with digital devices if they don’t have access to digital devices in school.

The better response I would have provided, given more time: It’s also difficult to teach them how to be safe online, how to protect their data and privacy, if they do not have dedicated time in the curriculum and dedicated teachers who can help them understand things like:

How the Internet works (and what, exactly, the Internet is).

What a digital footprint is, and how to manage yours. This seems like an easy enough thing to teach, but it’s not. Could you explain to a child:

  1. How companies work with the Internet to provide services to consumers, and the data they collect in order to provide those services (have you ever signed up for a Snapchat account? They stop just short of asking for your third cousin’s middle name)?
  2. How “third-party companies” gain access to data you’ve shared with other companies, and how they are able and allowed to use that information about you?
  3. How Amazon knows you’d like to buy a bike?
  4. How Google knows you’re in Massachusetts?
  5. How Twitter knows who you might know and want to follow?
  6. The role of big data in developing and maintaining your digital footprint?

What cloud computing is. Do you know?

What computers and machines can do. What they can’t do. And how humans can use them to do things we can’t do.

When to use a device to talk to someone. When not to. How to use a device to talk to someone. How you talk to someone differently on a device than you do in “real life.” How to be kind to someone when you talk to them with a device. How to use a device to talk to someone in order to get something done (digital collaboration). How to combine devices with analog strategies to get things done. This list only gets longer.

What it is safe and ethical to (not) do on a computer. Again, one of those “easy things to teach,” right? You just make sure kids know the “never” list:

  1. Never give anyone your address
  2. Never give anyone your phone number
  3. Never give anyone your full name
  4. Never agree to meet up with someone
  5. Never talk to strangers
  6. Never open an email from someone you don’t know

…but have you noticed that this list of “nevers” is similar to the nevers we heard as kids in the 80s? #5 basically covers it, right? Wrong. Because in this day and age, “knowing” someone is not cut-and-dry. Running into strangers online is easier than running into them in a crowded shopping mall. And  address, phone number, and name aren’t the only data points someone can use to hack into your accounts or local devices and run amok. Furthermore, this list of nevers doesn’t even touch ethical computing: fair use, copyright, and intellectual property is a different game in the digital age.

Some may argue that parents can have these conversations with their kids, but I think that relying on this serves to widen the digital divide and to perpetuate issues that have risen to the surface in recent years as kids are handed cell phones as early as 3rd grade.

Some parents — the ones who majored in computer science — are tech-savvy enough to have regular conversations about all of these things with their kids. But most are not. This is not a commentary on today’s parents, it’s just the reality of a world in which technology changes faster than we can blink. We grew up playing with Legos and VTech “computers.” Handheld Nintendo Gameboys. Atari. CD players. Dial-up. Our kids’ world is different. Teaching them how to be safe, aware, and strategic in it is difficult.

Most (but again, not all) parents ARE able to set boundaries that the film discussed: have a device curfew. Require access to your child’s accounts. Keep technology in a common space, and require that it be used in common spaces, not in isolated areas like bedrooms. Talk to kids about the concerns you have about their technology use, and about how they think it impacts them socially or academically. Here are a few other ideas. However, implementation of these strategies requires parental presence, which is not always a given depending upon work schedules.

All parents can ask their child’s school what they are doing to educate students about computing, the Internet, keeping information safe online, engaging in ethical online practices, and connecting with others positively, in ways that don’t disconnect them from the “real world.”

Thank You, FaceFriends (or, Why I Love Social Media)

First, a bit of catch-up… I’ve been off the blog for a while. A few things have happened in my life since the last time I blogged here:

  • I started a new job as Administrator of Educational Technology in Waltham, MA
  • I bought a house in Newton, MA, and moved into it
  • I had a baby girl

Needless to say, life has been a little distracting, but one of my many goals for the new year is to make time for one of the most important things in my life — my writing — which has taken a backseat to work, family, and running over the past year and a half or so. With a few papers that need to be revised, a book on digital PD that’s been slowly creating itself in my imagination, and a grant project that’s practically begging for some collaborative writing, I need to get my act together. So here’s a promise: I’ll be here more often this year.


Now, for today’s topic: a thank you to my Facebook Friends and a bit of reflection on the role of social media in my (and our) lives. I recently celebrated my 31st birthday. It was a special birthday, in that it was my first birthday as Mommy. It was a completely unspecial birthday, in that nobody really cares that much about the number 31, nothing particularly exciting happened, and I was really too exhausted to celebrate in any way other than getting a few more hours of sleep.

But something struck me on that 6th day of February as I nursed my daughter, talked to my husband, and dinked around on my smartphone: I know the most incredible and amazing people. As they chimed in to wish me a happy birthday on my Facebook wall — a social media tradition I’ve never thought about much — I couldn’t help but notice the diversity of these people and reflect on the experiences that brought them into my lives. My FaceFriends live all over the country — no, all over the world — and I am able to continue knowing them because of social media. This makes my life richer, fuller, and more exciting. This makes me an empathetic human who understands many different walks of life, in different places, through different lenses.

My partner and I are now living in our fourth state since we started dating back in 2002. At each step of my career, I have met incredible people. I have tailgated on muddy, grassy fields at 7am with them. I have established conference traditions that involve 5am runs in new places with them. I have seen some of them only once every other year, others I haven’t seen in nearly a decade, but their lives and experiences are important to me. We swap war stories, we share career wins, and we celebrate life’s milestones together. Sure, we post and comment, but we also message, text, and playdate with our puppies and, now that I have one, our babies.

Many have argued that social media renders relationships “meaningless,” or worse, that social media actually undermines human relationships. See here. Or here. Or here! Or here. Research from my alma mater has even shown that social media can make us “unhappy” (there is also research to counter this argument). These narratives posit that because of social media, we have fewer and less personal face-to-face interactions, we empathize less, and we become obsessed with a “perfect” version of life based on others’ curated social media personas. I’m not here to argue that these perspectives, some of them based on solid research, are false. I’m here to offer an counter-narrative.

Those of you who know my research know that I am particularly obsessed with social ties, what they represent, and how they influence our actions. My dissertation focused on how teachers’ colleagues, friends, and social learning impacted their teaching. As part of this research, I statistically examined not only teachers’ face-to-face relationships, but also their digital ones. This research and my personal experiences have led me to believe that social media, though certainly fraught with problematic issues related to cyberbullying (especially for today’s youth), can be a force of good in this world. Technological deterministic views would have us believe that social media is making us less empathetic and more detached. I take a more constructivist view, believing technology is what we make it (especially considering we made it to begin with).

As I have moved from state to state juggling work, school, and social, I have sometimes struggled to make and keep human connections. We live in such a mobile society, and my life with my partner is an excellent example of just how mobile, and in some cases “uprooted,” we have become. We have never lived in one place for more than four years. We have never really felt “settled.” We’re hoping to stay put this time, but who knows where life will take us? We have followed our careers across state lines and, ultimately, across the country. My social media life has allowed many of my connections to remain stable, and has even fostered new face-to-face connections. Here are just a few examples of people with whom I have digital/face-to-face relationships that social media has either started or kept intact:

  • The woman who taught me to love English
  • The woman who taught me to teach English
  • The new mom down the street
  • A bunch of new moms in my town
  • My running friend from north shore
  • My running friends from Indiana
  • My teacher friends in Michigan
  • My teacher friends in Indiana
  • My college friends
  • My former high school students, who are now doing things like getting married and having kids (what?!)
  • My professor friends in Ohio, Arkansas, Indiana… really all over the place
  • My family in Illinois, Connecticut, California, Ireland, Michigan… really all over the place

…you get the idea.

Many of these relationships would have fizzled, or never existed, without social media. The people I know and keep in touch with online hail from Connecticut, New York, Tennessee, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Florida, and Ohio. They are teachers, professors, students, parents, researchers, and administrators. Some of them, I have only met once — some of them are my best friends in the world. Some of them went to high school with me, and some of them I met last week. Some are coworkers, some are cothinkers, some are cowriters, and some fill many of these roles.

A few times, people have asked me why I display so much of my life on social media. Certainly, I understand why many people keep quiet. There is evidence that posting about your vacation on social media increases your risk of being robbed, for example. Others simply believe that one’s family life should be very private, not for the eyes of friends who wouldn’t otherwise participate in your day-to-day life. I not only understand these perspectives, I agree with them. The “me” that’s on Facebook is only “part” of me, not the whole me. I even curate for particular audiences: some only see the “professional me,” others see the “family me.” The pictures I do post of my family show our joyous moments, because I believe in spreading joy. They show our raw moments, because I also believe in #keepinitreal. They document our story, but only a shred of it. In and of themselves, my posts about my life and my interactions with friends in comment threads, while representations of relationships, rarely constitute the entirety of my social ties with an individual. These posts and comments are glimmers of relationships that have history, that mean more to me than a passing comment on social media or a photo of my dog. My social media self keeps up with my not-so-little-anymore cousins in Illinois, shares pictures of my daughter with her grandparents in a single click, and engages in academic discussions with my friends from graduate school.

Certainly, my anecdotal account is just that. It fails to represent the very tragic things that happen on social media. Teens and adults alike, and increasingly younger children, struggle with being tormented and sometimes are, unwittingly or knowingly, tormenters of others in spaces that feel falsely “anonymous” or safe. Social media can be used to harm one’s self-esteem, one’s public image, even one’s entire life. I won’t rehash these stories here — many of my readers are educators, and could tell ten of their own stories. Others of you have undoubtedly heard more than your fair share of these narratives on the news.

I offer my counter-narrative because I believe it shows how purposeful use of social media — use that spreads positive messages, that shares carefully-chosen moments with curated audiences, and that uses social digital spaces to bolster, not replace, “real” relationships, can be powerful (even beneficial) to our lives and the development of our social intelligence. I also believe this narrative has implications for today’s youth, who rarely hear such narratives. Instead, they hear horror stories about how social media sharing can harm, hurt, or humiliate them. They hear much about how not to use social media, and little about how to use it as productive members of a digital and global society.

So what if we changed the narrative?

Thanks, FaceFriends, for shaping mine.

From Pedagogy to Tech (and Back Again)

Since my first day on the job as a Digital Learning Specialist here in Boston, I’ve had a mantra. My colleagues know it, and it might annoy them sometimes (because they can usually hear me thinking it before it ever comes out of my mouth): it’s not about the tool

What does this mean? A few things:

  • Effective practices matter more than the tech tools you use to enact them
  • Goals for student learning matter more than getting devices into kids’ hands
  • How a teacher teaches matters more than the tech they use to teach
  • Development of strategic literacies matter more than knowing how to use a tool

Or to boil it down to basics, practice and pedagogy should always trump tools and technology. Teachers, school leaders, and all educators should think first about what their goals are for student learning — not about the tools available to them for teaching. Just because a chromebook cart sits in your school doesn’t mean you should use it every day. Just because your school has adopted Google Apps for Education doesn’t mean students should compose solely in Google Drive. And when learning about new technologies, understanding the tool isn’t nearly as important as understanding how teaching practice can benefit from (or be hindered by) its use.

This belief comes from my research and the research of many in the field of educational technology. In my observations of and conversations with teachers, I have found that teachers won’t adopt a new tool until they see a reason to do so — a reason that is transformative for their practice and that is tied into their existing goals and teaching methods. Other studies have found that teachers need to be introduced to a new tool “just in time” — in the moment that they want or need to use it — not “just in case” they happen to need the tool in the future.

Because this is my mantra, I try to design digital learning opportunities and resources in accordance with it. This means I loathe (yes, that is strong language — that’s why I chose it) creating how-to tutorials and linking teachers to how-to guides. I try to avoid listing links on websites to “cool new apps for (storytelling/writing/feedback/course management/quizzes/games/etc.).” Because it’s not about the tool. It’s about the practice. Instead, I (and my team) work to start with practice, and go from there — what to you want to do? what are your goals? what can this teaching approach do for you and your students? And from there — what are some apps that might work for you? Pedagogy first… then tools. 

I’ve tempered the mantra a bit this year, giving in to occasional moments when a “how-to” is simply the best and only way to go in the moment. I’ve also found that my approach is unrealistic for some educators, who will get “hooked” once they are using a particular tool. And this makes sense! I didn’t become addicted to video editing until I was playing around with iMovie. I didn’t become a fanatical (if novice) web designer until I built my first website in college. Through tool play, I learned to love technology — and from there, I built and honed my pedagogical approach to integrating technology. So maybe I have this backwards? Or maybe this relationship is dialogic…

A Google Drawing Brainstorm During the Writing Process

A Google Drawing Brainstorm During the Writing Process

And as I think about it more, of course it’s dialogic. Digital tools and teaching practices are mutually transformative, so it follows that learning about both should be a dialogic process. My objection comes in when new tools distract — when the shininess and newness of a new digital something attracts us, but also detracts from meaningful teaching and learning by making us forget, usually only temporarily, what we were trying to do in the first place.  Or when, in our obsession with being proficient users of a tool, we start worrying more about “how to use it” than about “why to use it.”

In professional development settings, this happens often. School leaders want their teachers to know “how to use” Google Drive, not necessarily why and when to use Google Drive. Teachers, too, want to know how to use Google Sites, Weebly, or WordPress, not how best to use sites to improve student learning and access to content. If I’m not careful, my job quickly becomes a training mission instead of a learning mission as I’m called upon to make sure educators across the district know how to use our tools… but who is teaching them when, why, or to what ends to use these tools?

I find myself in a space where I can’t avoid being a little bit tool-focused on a daily basis. In a spring series, my colleague and I covered four Google apps in four weeks of very tool-focused online and face-to-face workshops. In our Hangout Broadcasts, we’ve talked about (and shown how to use) specific tools, and when we do face-to-face workshops, we spend much of our time getting teachers oriented to a new tool… sometimes at the expense of discussion about what that tool might add to (or even subtract from) their practice. It seems inevitable, at times, that technology/tool will trump pedagogy/practice, but I refuse to give up the mantra.

However, I lack effective models of “good PD” looks like when practice is placed before tool — with the exception of work done by the National Writing Project and some comprehensive research studies (which are, on a team that features only two people in my position for an entire district, entirely unrealistic) to serve as models, I don’t know what “instructional technology district support” that places practice before tool looks like. But maybe, just maybe, it includes the following:

Collaborating with curriculum departments. This is key. TPACK tells us that content, pedagogy, and tech need to be intertwined. Common sense tells us that today’s disciplines — how we employ literacy and mathematical and scientific and historical knowledge in the real world — is changing by the day as new technologies transform our interactions with disciplinary content. Curriculum and technology are not, and should never again be, separate.

Eliminating lists of links. Stop it. Just stop it. Stop listing links on your websites. Stop, I said! Sure, the interconnectivity of the Internet is the super-coolest thing since sliced bread. But I’ve seen so many school websites with lists of resources that fail to address the why — the pedagogy — first and in the same breath as lists of new tools. Pedagogy separate from tool is not okay.

Striving for “just in time.” The one-shot workshop thing just isn’t cutting it, and yet I find myself doing it anyway. This is in part because I just can’t say no when a school leader asks for help getting their teachers to use technology more effectively and efficiently — of course I’ll help! But I’ve stopped walking in with much of an agenda. Instead, our team tries to walk in and figure out where everyone is, what they need to know right now, what is most important for them in this moment. This is a little scary — it means walking into a PD without much of (but maybe a little bit of) a plan. But it is consistent with research that shows that teachers are more likely to keep using a tool if they learn about it at exactly the right moment — right when they’re about to use it or need it.

I’ll keep adding to this list… in the meantime, tweet me (@lizhoman) with your thoughts.

 

 

Emails… and Digital Discourse Communities

I want to start this post with a not-very-brief anecdote on the shifting discourse of email depending on the social context in which an email is being sent. Trust me, it will make sense in a moment.

When I started my PhD program, I spent the first year convinced that my advisor was angry with me for some inexcusable offense I had unwittingly committed before I ever arrived. This was because her emails never started with a salutation, rarely ended with a signature, and usually consisted of one or two short, not always sugary-sweet, and painfully to-the-point sentences.

Granted, I tend to be a little verbose.

(Okay, fine, a lot verbose.)

But her conciseness was downright off-putting. I didn’t know what to do with it, or what to make of it. And it wasn’t just her — emails from professors, grad students, and staff across the university seemed to reflect this “I’m not in this email to craft a lovely letter to you, I’m here to tell you all how it is and get outta here.”

I didn’t understand this until about three years into my program, when my emails started getting shorter, sweeter (not really) and incredibly to the point. 

email-comic1

Basically, I stopped thinking so damn much about emails: whether to send them, how to start them, whether or not it was a good idea to send them, who to cc on them, who to bcc on them, when to reply all, etc. While I definitely kept such important (and often politically-loaded) factors in the back of my mind, I had become fully enculturated into the email structure of the space I occupied, which generally accepted the “just send it” approach to emails. Who has time to think about it?

A quick caveat to everything I just wrote: let no incoming grad student mistake this as an invitation to haphazardly email whatever pops into their minds straight to their advisor in a short, terse message. What you say in an email matters. How you say it matters. End caveat. 

Then I moved back into K-12, but not into a school or classroom — into a district office. And into an entirely new email culture. Suffice it to say that it’s taking me a while to learn the ropes of email etiquette in my new digs: who to cc, who not to cc, when to cc them, when to use a greeting, what kind of greeting to use, when to use a first name, what kind of email signature is acceptable, when NOT to send an email and let someone else send it instead, when to ignore an email, what kind of subject line grabs attention… really, all the rules are different here, it seems.

If any of my coworkers are reading this, I’m sure I’ve screwed it up on an email you’ve been cc’ed on (or were supposed to be and weren’t…), and I’m sorry. 

Why the lengthy anecdote about email? Because this seemingly minor issue I’ve been struggling with illustrates the extent to which digital writing is so deeply tied to the discourses of the communities we occupy in our day-to-day physical and virtual lives. As I was thinking about an email-incident-gone-awry from earlier this week, I reflected on just how entrenched the writing I do for work every single day is wrapped up in the conversations I have with people in my office, the interactions I have with teachers and students in the schools, the climate of the space and the relationships I have with my colleagues, and the history (or, in my case, lack thereof) of those relationships.

Which got me thinking about our students, and the kinds of interactional spaces they will need to navigate when they leave the classroom. Many teachers — within and beyond my district — are experimenting with new ways to communicate with students, but how many of those new modes of communication are also woven into conversations with students in the classroom? When teachers email students, or have students email them, message them, chat them, text them, tweet them, post a Facebook message on the class page, post a video to the Google Classroom feed… how often do teachers stop to talk to students about the discourse communities they are speaking to and within, the norms and expectations of those complex communities, and how to know what’s “okay” and what might offend or silence someone?

An Example: I thought of a moment from my dissertation study when “Mary” (a pseudonym) took an entire class day to discuss an email that a student had sent “on behalf of the entire class.” This particular moment opened up an opportunity for Mary to discuss digital responsibility with her students, to explain the norms of the classroom discourse community, to explore with her students the consequences of speaking for many in a single email. Such conversations, I find, are highly valued by teachers but are, on a day-to-day basis, somewhat rare in today’s classrooms. Lost in the shuffle of too many things, these conversations are sometimes silenced or shoved aside. However, given my own recent struggles with something as simple as email, I wonder if the role of these critical conversations is becoming an imperative.

As an ELA teacher, this is difficult for me to wrap my head around — I would have been incensed if someone suggested my curriculum should value things like email-writing over essay-writing. But when I think about it, I write thousands of emails in my work as a writer, and I write very few essays. Certainly, the academic environment is not all about preparing students for the workplace — it is also about teaching them to be thoughtful and critical human beings who challenge and question the world around them. Therein lies much of the purpose of argumentative writing (I think) — not to teach students how to write effective paragraphs, but to teach students how to develop and articulate a compelling idea.

However, in an increasingly digital world, developing and articulating a compelling idea sometimes happens in an email. It sometimes happens in a meme. Or even in a Facebook post. Furthermore, the social and rhetorical ramifications of “screwing up” in an email or a Facebook post are more severe than in an essay — such texts are directed specifically at certain people, at defined audiences.

What I’m noting here is nothing new. Teaching Channel has video resources related to talking about email etiquette with young students and an entire video playlist on teaching digital citizenship. If you’re a classroom teacher and you haven’t checked out Common Sense Media’s digital citizenship curriculum, you should! And bloggers on DigitalIs have been sharing their approaches to thinking about and teaching digital citizenship, which includes responsible interactions with others in online spaces, for years now.

My recent struggles with email only highlight that this kind of learning — figuring out how to navigate a digital discourse community and all of the types of writing that occur within it — never ceases. Despite considering myself a good writer, a social scientist, and someone who is (usually) pretty good at interacting with others, I am continually learning and re-learning how best to interact with my colleagues and others in my district over email (and Twitter, and Facebook, and Instagram, and this blog, and the list goes on). As we interact with our colleagues and students, how often do we take a moment to make transparent the expectations and norms of the discourse communities we occupy? Conversely, how often do we take for granted that those norms will be understood or agreed upon by everyone in the community?

Questions I will continue to chew on… but will not put in an email. Because that would be obnoxious. (See? I’m learning!)